A white billionaire playboy spends his evenings fighting bad guys in a cape and mask. A white alien works as a journalist but skips out to take down villains in the city.
Traditionally, superheroes fit a predictable mold: white males who stand as bastions of justice despite their vigilante status. In the riveting recent Netflix film “The Old Guard,” and the masterly Emmy-nominated HBO series “Watchmen,” Black women are the new kinds of heroes, not only breaking this mold but also allowing for a radical shift in storytelling.
A new guard of superheroism doesn’t simply mean diversity. It makes room for the possibility that especially now, as our political systems and institutions are being questioned, there is no absolute moral authority, even for those tasked with saving the day. It presents individuals better equipped to understand the weight of the badge and the mask, and the cost that comes with calling oneself a hero.
In “The Old Guard,” a foursome of immortals are led by the eldest, Andy (a mesmerizing Charlize Theron), a butt-kicking, steely-eyed warrior. As they trot around the globe crushing bad guys, they welcome a new member, a Marine named Nile (KiKi Layne).
When we meet Nile, she’s stationed in Afghanistan, handing out candy to kids in the street. Ordered to get intel on a location where a dangerous man might be hiding, she reminds her fellow troops to “keep it respectful.” She shoots the target but is visibly affected when he survives. She immediately rushes to stop the bleeding, but she is left vulnerable to a fatal knife attack — from which she miraculously recovers.
Movies and TV shows love an optimistic rookie, and the young and empathetic Nile is certainly that. But her race also ropes her into another cliché. Black women are often presented as the standard-bearers of ethical action. They’ve seen miscarriages of justice and have silently borne the pain or valiantly fought back; either way, they are resilience and goodness personified. This carries over to superhero narratives as well: think of Misty Knight in “Luke Cage,” Storm in the “X-Men” films, even the no-nonsense Okoye from “Black Panther.” Though Black women are rarely the protagonists of these stories, they are so often charged with being the pillars of strength and moral foundations of the team. In “The Old Guard” Nile is both the bright-eyed newbie and the strong moral compass, so she can serve as a foil for Andy and the others.
Nile is skeptical of the team’s supposed acts of righteousness. “So you good guys or bad guys?” she asks them. “Depends on the century,” one responds. “We fight for what we think is right,” another adds. The group is immortal but not infallible, and the immortals’ contention that they’re using their abilities to fight for their definition of justice is in line with that of myriad armies, generals and other militant bodies throughout history. Nile herself comes from one such institution — the U.S. military — which is often described as providing an essential line of national defense but in reality is also used to exert power and influence for less ethical and more political reasons. The film even puts the immortals in parallel to the actual military from which Nile comes: Andy outright declares they are an army.
The fact that Nile is a Black woman, someone who isn’t often seen in superhero films and who is often disregarded and disadvantaged — even brutalized — in our culture, makes a statement: This individual, part of a demographic that is so often victimized by discriminatory militant systems, can, in this world, have autonomy and the power to decide what she feels is right or wrong.
But ultimately “The Old Guard” goes easy on its heroes. Though Nile questions their good-guy status and self-appointed hero work, she ultimately joins them. After initially critiquing the moral superiority at work in hero movies by positioning Nile as the group’s conscience, “The Old Guard” won’t let us sit with the possibility that the immortals may not be the guardian angels they hope to be. A final twist reveals that there’s a grand design after all, and they unknowingly execute it.
Suddenly these heroes are, in fact, infallible, despite the blood on their hands. They — Nile included — are an army given the agency to act and kill in the name of the greater good. Whatever that means.
Last fall “Watchmen” also ended with the initiation of a Black female hero but delivered a more complex examination of her relationship to law enforcement, heroism and vigilantism. In the original comic of the same name, Alan Moore and David Gibbons produced an exquisite story but didn’t present any heroes of color and didn’t address the issue of race at all. The HBO series, created by Damon Lindelof as a sequel to the original, is refreshingly reactionary, positioning the narrative around race and presenting a Black heroine as the protagonist: a police officer named Angela Abar (Regina King) who gets tangled up in the world of superheroes and a megalomaniacal scheme for ultimate power.
Tracking down members of the Seventh Kavalry, a pseudo-K.K.K. group calling for a revolution, Angela is forced to hide her identity and makes more progress pummeling racists as a masked vigilante, Sister Night. After all, even her fellow police officers can’t be trusted. When she discovers a K.K.K. hood in the closet of her close friend and boss, Angela realizes that things aren’t as they seem.
The series also drives home this message that the definition and execution of justice isn’t a nice, tidy task. Angela discovers that her grandfather, a mysterious hero called Hooded Justice, also donned the costume when he was serving as a police officer. He was the victim of racist treatment by his peers and was unable to stand up against crime in the way he aimed to.
Two generations later, Angela faces similar circumstances, but she is undoubtedly the hero of the story. Angela is the new guard, following the legacy of the Watchmen.
Quite literally, she inherits superpowers and becomes more than the hero she already is; she becomes a god. And, though we’ve witnessed a whole season of Angela fighting for what’s right, we’re still denied a final image of her as a deity. Unlike “The Old Guard,” “Watchmen” never falls for its own fantasy of the courageous woman who can do no wrong. At its core, “Watchmen,” like the original comic, is a breakdown of the superhero fairy tale. But the series extends this critique to include an often glamorized institution that’s meant to represent justice but all too frequently fails: the police.
After becoming immortal, facing the rejection of her military peers, Nile is marginalized by one army with a morally ambiguous history of atrocities, foreign interference and political agendas, just to become the newest soldier of another that’s equally morally ambiguous — but rationalized in the universe of the film. Angela, by contrast, breaks with the police and their track record of racist behavior; by acting independently, in line with her own morals, she is granted godhood. Whether this makes her infallible isn’t the point. The point is that she is a Black woman who has found power outside a broken structure. Though this and her identity don’t make her irreproachable, her experiences as a Black woman, a police officer and then a vigilante give her a more nuanced understanding of justice. She has the potential to be an even greater hero than the ones we’ve seen.
Both “The Old Guard” and “Watchmen” present enthralling universes with powerful beings who aim to do right. But even in this supposedly protected world, justice isn’t a given. The character best suited to bring about change is the one who knows the system inside and out and understands what it means to be crushed beneath it. These Black women aren’t perfect, but they are the harbingers of a heroic revolution. Because when a Black woman puts on a mask, she is the closest vision of the kind of hero that the world actually needs.